For most of the offseason, we’ve heard Mark Stoops talk about how his program has no intent on taking a step back in 2019. After a 10-win season and losing two generational talents in Josh Allen and Benny Snell, most expect the Wildcats to fall back down to earth. However, no one at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility agrees with that sentiment. A big reason for that is what Kentucky returns on the line of scrimmage.
We’ve covered the entire offense to this point (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends) but have saved the best for last. John Schlarman returns to coach the trenches for the seventh season and in 2019 he has his best offensive line to date. Lynn Bowden, Jr. and Terry Wilson get most of the fanfare, but UK has a chance to be very good offensively because of who they have setting the tone at the point of attack.
When it comes to the NFL Draft, the offensive line has long been a weakness for the Kentucky football program. Outside of Larry Warford, Kentucky hasn’t had an offensive lineman drafted since 1993. Until Jon Toth in 2016, Kentucky had only one first-team All-SEC selection since 2003. The play on the line wasn’t getting the job done and John Schlarman has done his best to change that.
Mark Stoops realized quickly to win in the SEC you needed size combined with tough, physical play in the trenches. For Kentucky, it was always going to be hard to go out and find blue-chips that you could plug-and-play. Therefore, development was going to be a huge part of the program. On the offensive line, redshirting has been a key tool for the program with only three offensive linemen (George Asafo-Adjei, Landon Young, and Darian Kinnard) playing in their first seasons on campus. But at the same time, getting some blue-chips has helped build this current crop.
Drake Jackson, Darian Kinnard, and Landon Young were each top-200 recruits in the 247 Sports rankings and sometimes that makes life much easier. Since Eddie Gran arrived in 2016, this group has become one of college football’s best run blocking units and they show no signs of slowing down this fall.
One thing John Schlarman has done very well since 2016 is establish a rotation. Logan Stenberg and Landon Young each received reps during their rookie seasons in 2016. Luke Fortner, Mason Wolfe, Darian Kinnard, and Naasir Watkins received rotation snaps last year. This over most anything else has allowed the Wildcats to have continual success.
Offensive Line Room
When discussing Kentucky’s offensive line, it must start with the guy in the middle. After having a snapping fiasco in the first month of the 2017 season, Drake Jackson was inserted into the lineup and has now started in 20 consecutive games. If you remember back to that season, the Wildcats were having all kinds of problems with their ground game. Jackson finally got into the lineup and Benny Snell rushed for over 100 yards in five of the next seven games. After averaging 254.2 team rushing yards in their first five games of 2018, Kentucky posted just 120.4 yards per game in the next five as Jackson nursed a groin injury suffered against Texas A&M. UK desperately needs him healthy and he is the engine that drives this unit.
Surrounding the center at guard will be a pair of upperclassmen. Logan Stenberg has started 26 consecutive games at left guard after becoming part of the rotation his redshirt freshman year. The redshirt senior brings a nastiness to the position and he’ll certainly hear his named called in the next NFL Draft. After playing 19 games the last two seasons, Luke Fortner will finally get a chance to start as a redshirt junior. The 6-foot-6 guard has been moved all over the place and may even emerge as the team’s primary backup center this season. Rotating in with these two will be redshirt senior Mason Wolfe who brings experience (25 games played) to the position. It will be imperative that either redshirt sophomore Austin Dotson or redshirt freshman Kenneth Horsey crack the rotation for the future of the position.
On the outside, Kentucky has pair of former top-200 recruits starting the season for them. UK gets redshirt junior Landon Young back from injury this fall and his presence should certainly help an offense that ranked 109th in sack rate last season. After cracking the rotation as a true freshman, Young started six games as a sophomore in 2017, and then the injury bug bit last fall camp. He could be due for a big season.
On the right side, Darian Kinnard will take over a starting role after getting two starts at the end of last season. Kinnard was only the third offensive line player to play as a true freshman and it appears Kentucky has a future star in the Cleveland St. Ignatius product. Naasir Watkins will be the primary backup at tackle in his redshirt sophomore season while mountain man Nick Lewis (6-foot-9, 367 pounds) looks to get involved after a redshirt season.
Kentucky has size, experience, and depth on the offensive line entering the season. The starting rotation owns an average weight of 316.8 pounds while Mason Wolfe bring beef (6-foot-6, 323 pounds) and Naasir Watkins provides length (6-foot-5 with long arms) off the bench. Among their first five, the Wildcats have a combined 54 starts while Drake Jackson and Logan Stenberg figure to be in the running for All-SEC honors. Expectations are high for this group and there’s a reason why.
Pass protection is something they all must work on, but there’s no doubt that this will be one of the best run blocking offensive lines in the FBS as long as Drake Jackson is in the lineup and healthy. It’s likely safe to say that John Schlarman’s offensive line room has four future draft picks with some others looming. The position coach has been excellent at creating depth and has his most talented offensive line set to take the field in 2018. Eddie Gran stated at this week’s media session that ““Up front, we’re further along than we ever have been.” That should perk your ears up.
Mark Stoops has talked nonstop about how the program has no plans on taking a step back in 2019. Once doing some digging, it’s easy to understand why. The Wildcats return experience at quarterback and have the best offensive line this program has seen in quite some time. If the starting five stays healthy, this group is going to surprise some people and will be in contention for the Joe Moore Award if they can clean up that pass protection.